OS X Mavericks review: Free as in beer
At a Glance
OS X Mavericks
Mavericks adds new productivity features, under-the-hood changes to improve battery life, and new apps. It's a free update that's worth every penny you won't pay for it.
Apple makes a lot of claims about Mavericks making MacBooks more energy-efficient, thereby extending battery life. The new App Nap feature aggressively regulates apps that are out of your sight so that they aren’t draining your batteries as they sit idling. That sounds sort of scary, but at no point when I was using Mavericks did I feel I was delayed by a “napping” app that should have been awake. The changes that Apple has made are, to this user at least, completely invisible.
There are other power-saving features, too, including a lower-power video playback mode and a clever feature called timer coalescing that smooths out the tasks sent to your Mac’s processor so that it can spend more time coasting in a low-power idle.
Our tests showed that Apple has indeed improved battery life in several scenarios. Three of our four battery-life tests showed clear improvements for Mavericks, most notably a video playback test that took advantage of the lower-power playback feature to eke out 18 percent more battery life. Tests like this are tricky because they don’t necessarily match real-world usage patterns, but they do indicate that Mavericks can definitely reduce power consumption under certain circumstances.
One place where Apple is more aggressively exposing power-consumption information: In a drop-down menu under the Battery icon in the menu bar, you’ll see a list of currently running applications that are “using significant energy.” It’s a quick way for a user to get feedback on why the battery is draining quickly or a laptop’s fans are blowing. And the Activity Monitor utility—one of my favorite Mac troubleshooting apps—now offers a new Energy tab that shows you the energy impact of all the currently running processes on your Mac, plus historical data going back several hours. If you’re desperately trying to get the most out of your battery, it’s a great way to see what apps you might want to quit.
Mavericks comes with two new Apple apps as well as updates to a couple of familiar ones: Maps and iBooks are making their Mac premieres, and Mail and Calendar both get significant improvements.
I used to use Mail every day, but it’s most definitely a love-hate relationship and I’ve left it several times for another email client only to come back and give Apple’s offering another go. That relationship continues to run hot and cold in Mavericks.
When I got Mail to behave, it was most definitely faster than previous versions. Opening large message threads used to take a long time, especially if they contained complex HTML messages. Everything opens quickly now and scrolls smoothly. That’s great news.
I’m a Gmail user, and have two different Gmail accounts, one for my personal life and one for work. I’ve found that oftentimes Mail just slows down to a crawl, apparently because it’s downloading huge amounts of data from Gmail in the background. Occasionally I would click on a new message in my Inbox and it would take Mail more than 30 seconds to display the contents of the message. Call me crazy, but an email client should be able to prioritize the single most important thing any mail client can do: display the text of a new message that just appeared in the Inbox. Mail still doesn’t seem to do this well, and it’s exacerbated by slower connections.
I also ran into an infuriating set-up bug in Mail. Though all my email accounts are on Gmail, all my attempts to connect to them via Mail's Google-centric account setup failed. l had to configure my Gmail account as a generic IMAP account instead.
Calendar’s biggest change is to its look. Gone is the faux leather. But it also has some nice under-the-hood tweaks. For example, you can change the range of weekly and monthly views using a two-finger scroll. A fast two-finger swipe from right to left in the week view will advance you to the next week. Calendar also has a nice, subtle variation on that gesture: If you swipe slowly with two fingers from left to right, you can advance the view by individual days. A two-finger scroll upward in month view will, similarly, let you scroll week by week, so if you’re at the end of one month, you can see most of the following month too.
Calendar’s event inspector, which you summon by double-clicking on an entry, has been revamped. At last, you can specify a buffer of travel time in advance of an event; unfortunately, the Google Calendar with which my Calendar app syncs doesn’t seem to want to display that information. The location field of the event inspector is also tied in to Apple’s location database, so it will display map information and attempt to autofill your location information when you enter an event location. When calculating travel times, Calendar uses your locations to make guesses about how much time it will take to get from one place to another. Sometimes its guesses are good, sometimes not, but it’s nice that the app is making the effort.
The new Mac Maps app lays bare all of Apple’s mapping and location data. Perhaps it’s best to describe it as the Mac version of the iOS Maps app, because that’s what it is. You can look up locations, see maps in 2D or 3D relief, view vector map illustrations or overhead photographic views, get directions, see live traffic—the works. I found Maps to be a bit easier to navigate than Google Maps, probably because it’s a native app and can take advantage of the trackpad in some way that Google Maps can’t, embedded as it is in a browser window. Zooming in and out and rotating the map via trackpad gestures all worked naturally.
iBooks has finally arrived on the Mac with Mavericks. (What took it so long?) Regardless, now Mac users can read not just ePub-formatted ebooks, but all the fancy multimedia books created in iBooks Author that were previously readable only on the iPad.
I'm not sure I'd ever choose to read a book on my Mac, but some of those enhanced iBooks Author books are multimedia extravaganzaas that play really well on the Mac, sort of like the CD-ROMs of old. And as someone who also publishes ebooks, I know for a fact that many Mac users do want to read books on their Mac.
iBooks for Mac is a 1.0 product for sure, but I was impressed by some of its features that its competition still lacks. For example, you can opt to have iBooks not justify text and turn auto-hyphenation off as well. (Take that, Amazon!) It's exciting to see this last piece of Apple's digital-entertainment store ecosystem finally make it back to the Mac.
I don't want this review to grow to enormous size, but that means not covering every one of the 200 new features Apple says it's added to Mavericks. In the coming days Macworld will cover many individual Mavericks features in much greater detail. But for now, here are a few of the other features I found notable. You'll probably find one or two of your own favorites scattered among those 200.
The Software Update feature has received an upgrade in Mavericks; as in iOS 7, you have the option of having your apps—only those purchased in the Mac App Store, of course—automatically updated. No more checking the App Store app and pressing the Update All button; the app updates will be downloaded and installed in the background without any intervention from you. I found this a little disconcerting at first, but pretty convenient once I got used to it. And a setting in the App Store pane of System Preferences lets you turn off automatic updating if you’re afraid that a favorite app will get an unpleasant or unwanted update.
Mountain Lion introduced support for built-in dictation, which works more or less just as it did on iOS: When you have an Internet connection, you can begin speaking and, when you’re finished, what you spoke will appear as text, powered by speech-to-text processors on a server somewhere in the cloud.
That feature remains in Mavericks, but you can opt to download a 780MB Enhanced Dictation package that is available regardless of your Internet connection status. More important, Enhanced Dictation also displays the words you’re saying more or less as you’re saying them, in the style of third-party dictation products such as Dragon Dictation. This built-in dictation still doesn’t offer corrections and individual calibration as Dragon does, but it’s a major upgrade and makes dictation much more usable, in my experience. I always felt strange speaking without any feedback about what I was saying. Now, as I’m talking, I can see the words appear on screen. That feedback helps a lot.
AppleScript and Automator also have a few new features—perhaps most notably, AppleScript Libraries, which lets scripters reuse code and create custom commands. A new Display Notification command ties into Notification Center, and the AppleScript Editor now supports iCloud’s Documents in the Cloud feature.
The Library folder, obscured in Mountain Lion in an attempt to keep users from ruining their systems, can now be returned to visibility. Visit your home folder, press Command-J to bring up the View Options panel, and check Show Library Folder. That wasn't so hard, now was it?
And here’s an earth-shattering feature to end on: Messages no longer translates your ;-) into graphic smileys. If you want those smileys, you’ll need to click on the triangle and smiley-face symbol at the far right corner of the Messages text-entry area. You’ll be greeted with an entire emoji browser, so you can pick smiley symbols to your heart’s content, no typing required.
I’ve been using Mavericks for several months now, and with the possible exception of Mail, I find it to be a solid, stable release. It’s free and it’s good. It adds some nice power-user features, a couple of interesting new built-in apps, and a whole bunch of cool behind-the-scenes stuff, mostly focusing on decreasing power consumption and increasing battery life.
Mavericks isn’t a visual rethinking of OS X the way that iOS 7 was for iOS. Yes, some of the leather has been removed from Calendar and Contacts, but Mavericks isn’t a radical change. It’s a grab bag of tweaks, simplifications, advances made in lockstep with iOS, and improvements under the hood. As such, it’s hard for me to pinpoint what the unifying message of Mavericks is supposed to be, other than that the Mac continues to move forward into a glorious future free of cat names.
So let’s boil it down to the essentials. Mavericks is free, compatible with a whole lot of Mac hardware, and makes the experience of using your Mac better in numerous (mostly but not entirely small) ways. It’s worth every penny you’re not paying for it.
[Portions of this review appeared in a series of articles published on Macworld this summer, after I was granted access to the first Mavericks developer preview by Apple. It's been altered and updated based on the final version, and all images are from the shipping version of Mavericks.]
OS X Mavericks review: Free as in beer